We want our children to be healthy. When they’re at home, we offer nutritious food, encourage exercise and promote wellness. But once school begins, our kids spend many of their waking hours at school. So, does your child’s school support or sabotage health and wellness?
HEALTHY MEALS and SNACKS
Ideally, schools should offer and promote healthy food and beverage options. To support that effort, the Austin ISD has partnered with the Life Time Foundation to remove highly processed, unhealthy foods from breakfast and lunch menus. They’re targeting the “Harmful 7”, which includes trans-fats and hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, meat with hormones and antibiotics, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors and flavors, artificial preservatives and bleached flour.
But what about snacks? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 6 percent of schools sell fruits and vegetables as snacks. AISD elementary school students can buy “Smart Snacks,” which include bunny grahams, cheese goldfish, cheese popcorn and natural frozen pops. The AISD Wellness Policy limits access to foods of minimal nutritional value anywhere on school premises until the end of the last class.
About 75 percent of schools sell sugar-laden soft drinks to students. Sugar-sweetened beverages don’t offer any nutritional benefit and are a major contributor to childhood obesity. The American Heart Association recommends that a child drink no more than one 8-ounce, sugar-sweetened beverage per week.
Does your child have easy access to drinking water during the school day? Water is a healthy alternative to sugar-sweetened beverages and helps students stay hydrated. The CDC recommends that schools:
- Provide access to water fountains, dispensers and hydration stations throughout the school
- Ensure the water-dispensing equipment is clean and working
- Allow students to have water bottles in class or go to the water fountain if they need to drink water
To learn more about promoting water programs in schools, download the Parent Toolkit from waterinschools.org.
The CDC recommends students do at least 60 minutes or more of physical activity daily. Less than 4 percent of schools in the US require daily physical education (PE). AISD requires elementary students to get 135 minutes of structured PE activities per week. Students get 45 minutes every third day under the supervision of a PE teacher. On most days, classroom teachers supervise about 20 minutes of structured physical activity so that students reach the required 135 total minutes. In addition, students get 30 minutes of recess every day.
AISD requires that all 3rd to 12th grade students enrolled in PE take a fitness assessment, which scores strength, muscular endurance and flexibility. Scores are compared to standards to help you determine your child’s overall physical fitness and areas for improvement. Parents can get a copy of the Fitnessgram Report from their child’s PE teacher.
Teachers and staff should encourage physical activity and not use it as a punishment, such as requiring a child to run 10 laps as a negative consequence. Children should not be deprived of recess as a punishment or consequence of not finishing work.
Schools should take steps to protect children from the spread of germs and disease. According to the CDC, handwashing with soap could protect about one out of every three children who get sick with diarrhea and one out of five children who get respiratory infections, such as colds and flu. Germs can spread quickly within a school. Hands not washed after toileting can spread Salmonella, E. coli and norovirus to door knobs, hand rails and desks. This can expose many children to illness. Students should be given enough time to wash their hands before eating to help stop the spread of germs.
Some communicable diseases, such as measles, are highly contagious and can spread quickly in a school setting. A single case of measles can cause 12 to 18 new cases in children who haven’t been vaccinated. Measles resulted in millions of deaths every year before a vaccine was developed. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, almost 45,000 children have exemptions to school immunization laws for nonmedical reasons. The exemption rate in Travis County for the 2016-2017 school year was 2.45 percent — a significant increase from 5 years earlier at 1.53 percent. An article in PLoS Medicine by Dr. Peter Jay Hotez notes that the exemption rates of private schools in the Austin area often exceed 20 percent. He warns that vaccine coverage among a population needs to be high (over 90 to 95 percent) to prevent measles outbreak in a school. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about the risks and benefits of vaccinations to make the best decision on protecting your child’s health.
Learn more about supporting health and wellness in your child’s school at “Parents for Healthy Schools” on the CDC website at https://tinyurl.com/y8lgqsks
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.